Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Fashionable Despair: Observations on the Demise of Standards

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Fashionable Despair: Observations on the Demise of Standards

Article excerpt

Abstract. Claims of cross-institutional declines in standards cannot be gainsaid. "Fashionable Despair" about such declines may have foundations in important challenges to public institutions other than those based on the alleged disarticulation between values and criteria. The claims of declining standards may be better examined in the context of interest conflicts. And interest conflicts may be at the level of basic values, not merely the criteria designed to represent them. This discussion raises questions about the claim of falling standards and identifies some existing resources for thinking about it.


Professor Benjamin Singer's apocalyptic analysis of the demise of standards in the professions, in the leading institutions, and in public life paints a worrisome picture of a society whose values have been co-opted by forces of expediency, leaving the culture deeply rudderless and ultimately on the brink of barbarism. Incompetence marks the ranks of physicians, scientists, educators, and accountants. Quality control has declined in both the animate and the inanimate, i.e., both in politicians and in Ford motor cars. A pervasive fin de siecle malaise replaces an earlier age of authenticity in times past when "our experience with the essential things of our lives was most often individual and empirical" as opposed to collective and external. Why is this so?

Standards have become disarticulated from their underlying values and the media of assessment and representation have come to occupy the place where standards were once closely guarded. Professor Singer further argues that biased assessment criteria for identifying quality and performance actually replace the meaningful standards with trivial measurements of convenience, and professional behaviour changes accordingly. Indeed, bad faith would appear to replace professional duty. Professors write banal papers with a high probability of acceptance by "refereed" journals because numbers of publications outweigh their quality. Lawyers take only the cases they can win, and surgeons decline hazardous operations. Not only this, but professionals are encouraged to falsify their credentials to take advantage of the frailties of the criterial systems, and so advance their careers, not through what Goffman called "benign misrepresentation," but through outright deceit: "scientific researchers publish fraudulent findings to make it through criterial systems for tenure and promotion."

And what is the solution? The solution is the development of "a new sociological paradigm" of the standards complex, a new "general social science of standards." Professor Singer acknowledges that such an enterprise would not turn its back on the more common sociological territory -- marketplace dynamics, bureaucracies and professions -- though these are described as "the other major forces that drive standards" [emphasis added], as though criteria were an autonomous force of greater gravity than the familiar sociological variables.

What can be said of the diagnosis and of the solution? In my view, Benjamin Singer's paper mirrors, and indeed amplifies, the crisis literature about which he writes. He exhibits a healthy doubt about the virtues of technological rationality, and like other humanists, seeks a reintegration of reason and values. In this I subscribe to his enthusiastic views. However, in some respects, his arguments are prone to undercurrents of scholasticism and Platonism. In general, the paper reflects the fashionable despair of postmodern times. It sometimes conflates doubt and critique with caricature. Like many readers, I am skeptical of the accuracy of his diagnosis of the age of criteria, and doubtful about the utility of his solution.

Are Standards Falling?

Social scientists are not unaccustomed to proclamations of immanent crisis. Popular support for social change and law reform has often been initiated by dire warnings of impending doom if steps are not taken to eliminate such intrusions into the culture as narcotics, alcohol, white slavery, dangerous foreigners, sports hooligans, and, in the age of Manning's Reform Party, secular humanism. …

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